Artful Deceptions and other Fallacies: A Page From Posner

James H. Fetzer, Ph.D.

This article appears in "The Fourth Decade" (January 1998), pp. 8-12

 

There have by now been many published critiques of Gerald Posner's Case Closed. In a book of this length, a Posner defender might protest that there are bound to be some errors, and critics are perhaps hypercritical in pouncing on the inevitable errors. To counter this defence of Posner, I shall in this article focus on a single page of Case Closed (104) and show that Posner committed no fewer than 10 fallacies on this single page.

Fallacy #1: page 104, lines 1 to 6:

 

Posner: "The day after his Walker vigil, Monday, March 12, he clipped a coupon from the February issue of American Rifleman and sent a $21.45 money order to a Chicago-based mail-order house, Klein's Sporting Goods. He ordered, under his alias A Hidell, an Italian military rifle, a 6.5 mm Mannlicher-Carcano, complete with a four power (4X) scope."

 

Posner may be unimpressed with the meticulous studies that cast doubt on whether Oswald had anything to do with the Walker shooting, but he should at least admit that evidence is out there. A nice discussion of this issue may be found in Jim Marrs' Crossfire, pp.255-265, a book which is included in Posner's bibliography but not cited here. Taking for granted something that should be established on independent grounds is the fallacy of begging the question. Moreover, there is serious doubt whether he used the "A. Hidell" alias and actually ordered the weapon, as George Michael Evica, We are All Mortal, pp. 1-10, among others, has observed. Posner also neglects to point out testimony that this rifle's firing pin was worn and rusty, that it was part of a shipment of defective weapons and that such rifles were available "for $3.00 each in lots of 25", as O'Toole, Assassination Tapes, pp. 27-28, observes. Posner may have wanted to avoid the impression that this was a cheap weapon but, for comparison purposes, the Leyson's New Guns Annual (1961) lists the Savage 99F at $121.50, the Browning Mauser .30/06 at $164.50, and the Winchester 70.300 caliber at $134.95. When you cite only evidence favorable to a position, you commit the special pleading fallacy. It was a cheap weapon.

 

Fallacy #2: page 104, lines 6 to 14:

 

Posner: "Most critics disparage the Carcano rifle as a poor choice for eventual use in an assassination. Robert Sam Anson says it 'had a reputation for being notoriously inaccurate' and that the Italians had dubbed it 'the humanitarian rifle' since it was never known to hurt anyone. Mark Lane alleges the Carcano is 'universally condemned as inaccurate and slow' and 'the ammunition is old and unreliable'. Besides the fact that Oswald would not have known this, firearms experts say the opposite."

 

Again two fallacies are committed here. When Posner juxtaposes Anson, Lane and "the Italians", who belittle the weapon, with "firearms experts" who praise it, he implies that those who belittle the weapon are not firearms experts whose opinions should be taken seriously. Initially, therefore, he appears to be calling the critics' hands. While the authors themselves might not be firearms experts, that does not necessarily mean they were relying upon their own personal judgement. In the case of Lane, for example, Posner cites Rush to Judgement, p. 105, where no such discussion occurs. Instead, it may be found in the chapter entitled, "The Rifle Test", which runs from p. 121 to p. 130. The specific sentence occurs on p. 125 and cites commission testimony. Contrary to Posner's insinuations, Lane cites several firearms experts who describe Mannlicher-Carcanos as "poor military weapons", as "crudely made, poorly designed, dangerous and inaccurate . . .unhandy, crude, unreliable on repeat shots, has safety design fault", and as having a "'terrible' action and 'a coy habit of blowing the firing pin out in the shooter's face'" (Rush to Judgement, pp. 122-123). Lane's entire chapter appears to be a thoughtful and well-balanced account of the rifle and the alleged marksman's (woefully limited) ability to use it, which raises questions about Posner's use of this citation. Lane even quotes a letter from the manufacturer of the 6.5 mm cartridge, who explains that this ammunition had not been manufactured since 1944. Posner has not read Lane's account or else is grossly distorting it. There is no special name for this fallacy other than poor scholarship or (perhaps) deliberate deception. When he suggests that, even if it were a terrible weapon, "Oswald would not have known that", moreover, he undermines his own position. No one suggests that he read Anson's or Lane's books, but if he deliberately chose a weapon of this kind to commit a crime of this kind, he was not merely a feeble marksman (which we already knew) but actually ignorant about weapons of this kind (which makes him less plausible as the alleged assassin). Posner appears to be engaging in self-defeating argument.

 

Fallacy #3: page 104, lines 14 to 15:

 

Posner: "When the FBI ran Oswald's gun through a series of rigorous shooting tests, it concluded 'it is a very accurate weapon'".

 

Lane's chapter provides a nice rebuttal, but Posner has apparently not read it. Other sources provide the strongest confirmation of the absurdity of any claims to accuracy on behalf of this weapon. Indeed, as Summers, Conspiracy, pp. 46-47, observes, "The original Mannlicher-Carcano [alleged to be Oswald's rifle] was an uncooperative piece of evidence, as army experts discovered after the assassination. As a spokesman put it, one of them 'had difficulty in opening the bolt in his first firing exercise. . . ' He added that, as newcomers to the weapon, 'The pressure to open the bolt was so great that we tended to move the rifle off the target . . .' An assassin using the Mannlicher-Carcano in Dealey Plaza may, of course, have known the quirks of his weapon, but this account suggests the gun was hardly ideal for feats of marksmanship." O'Toole reports the commission "also heard rifle experts testify that the telescopic sight could be easily knocked out of adjustment and that this would make accurate shooting with the gun unlikely, that shims had to be inserted to elevate and move the sight before the commission's three marksmen could fire the rifle accurately, and that, even using stationary targets, expert marksmen were unable to equal Oswald's alleged accuracy" (Assassination Tapes, p. 27). No doubt Posner has not read them either. He thus commits a nice example of the fallacy of equivocation: the tests were not done with Oswald's rifle in its original condition, because it was a terrible weapon. When he says "the FBI ran Oswald's gun through a series of rigorous tests", it was a reconstructed weapon that was not available to Oswald, so it is difficult to see how they concluded it was accurate.

 

Fallacy #4: page 104, lines 15 to 17:

 

Posner: "It had a low kickback compared to other military rifles, which helped in rapid bolt-action firing."

 

This is an outstanding case of special pleading, where you cite only evidence favorable to your side and ignore the unfavorable. Kickback is a function of recoil, which is determined by the amount of force directly imparted to your shoulder with a shoulder-supported weapon. That amount of force depends upon the caliber, weight, and charge of the round. A more powerful bullet imparts greater recoil, a less powerful bullet, less recoil, for weapons which can chamber both. Less force, in general, produces less velocity, less penetration power, and often less accuracy. (More detailed discussions may be found in Fadala, Rifle Guide, pp. 38-41, for example, and Withers, Precision Handloading, pp. 135-145). The "low kickback" of the Mannlicher-Carcano thus indicates that it is a weapon of low penetrating power and probably of low accuracy. There is a great deal of direct and indirect evidence for these conclusions. Rice's Gun Data Book (1975), p. 89, for example, characterizes a cartridge that is manufactured for the Mannlicher-Carcano as follows:

 

6.5 Italian (Carcano). This cartridge, made by Norma in a 156 grain bullet, has the slowest muzzle velocity and weakest striking power of any of the 6.5 mm imports, so it is not as popular as its Japanese, German, or Swedish counterparts.

 

As I explained above, the ammunition that Oswald was alleged to have used had not been manufactured by the Western Cartridge Company since 1944, so it is not surprising that a gun data book published in 1975 does not include it. However, since the bullet picked up from a stretcher at Parkland Hospital is alleged to be of the same kind and weighed 158.6 grains, the properties of the Norma and Western cartridges are probably very similar. This inference is supported by the muzzle velocities that are recorded for the Norma bullet:

Cartridge

Wt. Grains

Type

Velocity:

Muzzle

100 yds

200yds

Carcano

156

SP

 

2000

1810

1640

SP means "soft point" as opposed to HP "hollow point", BP "bronze point", etc. (Rice, Gun Data Book, p. 118). The bullets that hit JFK are supposed to have been "copper jacketed". Since John Withers observes that "high velocity is a relative term without exact meaning" (Precision Handloading, p. 135), I looked for evidence indicating that "high velocity" and "medium velocity" had an essentially similar meaning around the time of the assassination. Leyson's New Guns Annual (1961), p. 19, describes a 170 grain, .30/30 bullet which still has a velocity of 1890 fps at 100 yards as a "heavier bullet of slower velocity" than the high velocity bullets he has discussed, such as the Silver Tip 180 grain bullet with a velocity of 2850 fps at 100 yards. Notice, especially, that this .30/30 bullet is traveling faster than the Carcano bullet at 100 yards, yet is still described as slower than high velocity. This strongly supports the description of the Mannlicher-Carcano as a medium to low velocity weapon in technical terms that have been constant since at least 1961. As for "helping" with its bolt-action firing, see the discussion of Fallacy #3.

 

Fallacy #5: page 104, lines 17 to 22:

 

Posner: "With a 4X scope, even an untrained shooter could fire at a target like a marksman. As the FBI firearms expert Robert Frazier said, 'It requires no training at all to shoot a weapon with a telescopic sight,' and that particular sight needed virtually no adjustment at less than 200 yards, the range of the eventual assassination shots."

 

Persons who are very good at something commonly underestimate the difficulty of others who are inexperienced or not very good at the same thing. I supervised marksmanship training as a commissioned officer in the Marine Corps while I was stationed at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego from 1964 to 1966, and I can assure you that "firearms expert" Frazier has to know better. Apart from the quality of the weapon and the ammunition, which in the Oswald scenario were far from favorable, the most important elements are a steady position, sight alignment, and trigger squeeze. Without doubt, sight alignment is made vastly easier for experienced shooters and inexperienced shooters alike with a telescopic sight. This , however, is far from saying that "It requires no training at all to shoot a weapon with a telescopic sight", especially at a moving rather than a stationary target. The mastery of marksmanship requires developing a steady body position and a smooth trigger squeeze. If Frazier does not know better, then he is no "firearms expert". This is another case of special pleading, which has several additional facets. One is that the use of a telescopic sight may make it easier to zero in on a target, but it takes more time to zero in. There is a trade off here between time and accuracy that does not appear to have received sufficient attention. Whether Oswald had 6 seconds or 8 seconds to fire three shots makes little difference, because presumably he had to take the time to aim his weapon. With a moving target using a telescopic sight, I doubt that anyone of his rather modest ability could accomplish the feat that is alleged (of firing 3 times and hitting a small target twice in 6 to 8 seconds at ranges around 100 or 200 yards). Another is that the specific telescopic sight that was attached to Oswald's rifle posed severe difficulties for the expert shooters who were called upon to test it. As Lane reports, "the rifle sight was rebuilt and two or three metal 'shims' were fitted to provide a degree of accuracy previously absent. At first, apparently, the telescopic sight was so unrelated to the line of fire and so inexpertly attached that it could not be adjusted. Simmons [who was in charge] was asked if the technicians in the machine shop 'had any difficulties with sighting the weapon in'; he replied, 'Well, they could not sight the weapon in using the telescope" (Rush to Judgement, pp. 126-127). And Summers explains that the experts concluded that the iron sights would have worked better under the firing conditions which Oswald allegedly confronted, so they undertook tests without the scope by firing at stationary targets and were still unable to replicate his alleged performance (Conspiracy, p. 46). The point of this fallacy is to convey a false impression.

 

Fallacy #6: page 104, lines 22 to 24

 

Posner: "The Carcano is rated an effective weapon, good at killing people, and as accurate as the U.S. Army's M-14 rifle."

 

This is an appeal to popular sentiments. By suggesting that the Mannlicher-Carcano is just as good as the U.S. Army's M-14 (a claim which is difficult to take seriously), we are supposed to infer that it must be a good weapon, because any weapon the U.S. Army uses must be a good weapon-and it's just as good! A wonderful story appears in Bloomgarden's book about the rifle Oswald is alleged to have used by "a veteran of the Fifth Army campaign in Italy who fought alongside the partisans. When they fired their Mannlicher-Carcanos, the sound was 'much like a firecracker. I couldn't believe they were serious . . . I thought the bullets would poop out and drop harmlessly, no trajectory . . . it sounded like the Fourth of July" (quoted from The Gun by Model and Grodon, JFK: The Case for Conspiracy, p. 86). At least, it is a wonderful story until you recall that many of the witnesses in Dealey Plaza reported that the first shot sounded more like a firecracker than it did a rifle round and that the bullet that hit him in the back had shallow penetration.

 

Fallacy # 7: page 104, lines 24 to 27:

 

Posner: "The Carcano's bullets, 6.5 millimeter shells, are 30 to 50 percent heavier than the average bullet of that diameter, and travel with the same velocity, 2,100 feet per second, as the Russian AK-47 assault rifle."

 

This combines an appeal to popular sentiments with a faulty analogy. The Russian AK-47 is a familiar sounding weapon that is widely believed to be an excellent assault rifle. Thus, if the Mannlicher-Carcano fires projectiles with the same velocity as the AK-47, it must be an excellent weapon too. That is the appeal to popular sentiments. An assault rifle is designed to put out a large number of rounds in a short space of time, however, and would be a hopeless choice for an assassination from the sixth floor of a warehouse or an office building. Notice that, if the analogy were carried through more exactly-if the Mannlicher-Carcano fires projectiles with the same velocity as the AK-47, it must be an excellent assault rifle-then it falls apart. He might as well contend that various quality weapons have barrels of similar length as the Mannlicher-Carcano (stocks made of material similar to that of the Mannlicher-Carcano, etc.), but they would all be roughly on a par in their argumentative force: plausible but misleading.

 

Fallacy #8: page 104, lines 27 to 30:

 

Posner: "The 6.5 mm bullet, when fired, is like a flying drill," says Art Pence, a competitions firearms expert. Some game hunters use the 6.5 mm shell to bring down animals as large as elephants."

 

This passage combines fallacies of equivocation and appeals to authority with the argumentative strategy known as divide and conquer. Note that the "firearms experts" upon whom Posner relies are Art Pence, who is said to be a "competitions firearms expert", and Robert Frazier, the FBI "firearms expert". Competition firearms is a distinct class of weapons from big game weapons which is a distinct class of weapons from handguns and machine guns which is a distinct class of weapons from military rifles (among which the Mannlicher-Carcano is especially obscure). See, for example, Fadala's Rifle Guide, Leyson's New Guns Annual, or Quertermous and Quertermous' Modern Guns and other similar references. Merely because Art Pence may be an expert on competition firearms does not make him an expert on military firearms, especially obscure ones. Moreover, I nowhere find Frazier described except as a "firearms expert", but his area of expertise could be that of handguns and machine guns (with which the FBI is undoubtedly familiar) rather than of military firearms, especially obscure ones. Thus, the use of the term "firearms expert" might be based upon his knowledge with respect to weapons of one kind and conceal his actual ignorance with respect to weapons of another kind. That is the fallacy of equivocation. When you appeal to an expert in one field as an authority in another in relation to which he is not expert, however, you also commit a fallacious appeal to authority. In this instance, the equivocation is used to conceal a probably fallacious appeal to authority. The divide and conquer move is actually fascinating. If you cannot defeat an argument, then divide it into parts and defeat its parts. In this case, if you cannot exonerate the Mannlicher-Carcano as a half-way decent weapon, then separate the rifle from its bullets and exonerate the bullets. The actual effects of firing any rifle, of course, results from the interaction of various factors, including the rifle, the ammunition, the shooter and the target, so perhaps you can make a more plausible case for the bullet than you can for the rifle. (That this is doubtful in this case is suggested by the discussion of Fallacy #4, but perhaps it's worth a try, if your other arguments are not doing the job.) The elephant hunting allusion intrigued me, so I was dumbstruck when I discovered the following comments on 6.5 mm ammunition in Fadala's Rifle Guide, pp. 38-39: "The 6.5 mm was the darling of the rich and famous hunters of the early 1900s who carried the Mannlicher carbine all over the world. A few hunted elephants with the little gun. Even Elmer Keith, the big-bore guru, stated in American Rifleman magazine that the 6.5 mm was deadlier that its bore size." This sounds like something Posner could have used, except that the Mannlicher that the rich and famous hunters carried all over the world in the early 1900s was a high-quality rifle produced in the 1890s and not the shoddy Mannlicher-Carcano of World War II. (See Peterson, Encyclopedia of Firearms, pp. 195-196, on the Mannlicher, Quertemous and Quertemous, Modern Guns, p. 202, on the Mannlicher-Carcano.)

 

Fallacy #9: page 104, lines 30 to 33:

 

Posner: "The bullets manufactured for Oswald's Carcano were made by Western Cartridge Company, and the FBI considered them 'very accurate . . . [and] very dependable,' never having misfired in dozens of tests."

 

Special pleading. The only good thing that can be said of them may be that they never misfired in dozens of tests. That might make them dependable, but it cannot make them accurate. See especially Fallacies #2 through #6.

 

Fallacy #10: page 104, lines 33 to 35:

 

Posner: "The FBI's Frazier concluded the Carcano was a good rifle for the assassination."

 

This is an example of the big lie. Anyone who has read through the first nine fallacies is unlikely to be taken in by the tenth. Any "firearms expert" who truly believed this would thereby demonstrate his own incompetence.

 

 

I would observe that these ten fallacies are all committed in the space of a single page. Of the works I have ever studied, this one appears to have the highest falsehood density quotient (false sentences sentences) of them all.

 

References

 

Bloomgarden, Henry S. (1975), The Gun (Grossman Publishers).

 

Evica, George M. (1978), We are All Mortal (University of Hartford).

 

Fadala, Sam (1993), Rifle Guide (Stoeger Publishing Company).

 

Lane, Mark (1966/1992), Rush to Judgement (Thunder's Mouth Press).

 

Lyson, Burr (1961), The New Guns Annual (Arco Publishing Company)

 

Marrs, Jim (1989), Crossfire: The Plot that Killed Kennedy (Carroll & Graf).

 

Model, Peter and Robert Grodon (1976), JFK: The Case for Conspiracy (Manor Books).

 

O'Toole, George (1975), The Assassination Tapes (Penthouse Press, Ltd.).

 

Peterson, Harold (1964), Encyclopedia of Firearms (E.P. Dutton).

 

Quertermous, Russell and Steven Quertermous (1981), Modern Guns, Revisited 3rd Edition (Collector Books).

 

Rice, F. Philip (1975), Gun Data Book (Harper & Row).

 

Withers, John (1985), Precision Handloading (Stoeger Publishing Company).

 

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